The 1910 Challenge

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The centenary of the Col du Tourmalet’s inclusion in the Tour de France will be celebrated with a mountain-top finish on stage 17 of the 2010 edition of the race. As well as the special edition Tourmalet Jersey, Rapha honoured the first ever Tour stage that tackled the Tourmalet with a tribute ride, The 1910 Challenge.

History

July 1910 was an historic month for the Tour. In just its eighth year, it would be the first time the race tackled the high cols of the Pyrenees, when one stage in particular would become the stuff of legend; Stage 10, from Luchon to Bayonne. Covering 326km, it came just two days after the 289 kilometres of Stage 9. Among the obstacles ranged against the riders were climbs that now occupy iconic status: Peyresourde; Aspin; Soulor; and the Aubisque. Yet standing sentinel above them all, a mountain that has come to symbollise the unforgiving nature of racing through the upper reaches of this great range – the Col du Tourmalet, the highest col in the Pyrenees.

At 2,114m, the Tourmalet has inspired a mixture of awe and fear for as long as men have contemplated crossing it. In 1910, the ride profile barely began to tell the story. From the west, starting at Luz-Saint-Sauveur and travelling via Bareges, the Tourmalet delivers 18.3km of riding, with a rise of 1,450m and gradients between 7% and 9%. From the east, via Sainte-Marie de Campan, riders must climb 1,500m over 17.4km, the last 8km providing gradients of 9% and 10%.

It was one Alphonse Steinès that first suggested sending the peloton up the Tourmalet’s mighty flanks. A loyal lieutenant to Tour founder Henri Desgrange, it was Steinès who, in January of 1910, led a reconnaissance of the great mountain. Steinès’ notebooks recounting his experiences during those early Tours are currently on display at Rapha Cycle Club in London. One thing they don’t record is the reaction of Desgrange when the Tourmalet was first mooted for inclusion in the race – Steinès was clearly insane. In the absence of anything that might reasonably be called a road, asking riders to negotiate a route that in places was little more than a donkey track was madness.

Undeterred, Steinès set out to survey the mountain from the east. Travelling by car, when heavy snow forced him to stop 4km short of the summit he pushed on, this time on foot. It was close to 3am when he was eventually discovered by a search party and though it was a bedraggled Steinès that was returned to Bareges, it was also a triumphant one. ‘Tourmalet crossed. Stop.,” ran his cable to Desgrange, “Very good road. Stop. Perfectly acceptable. Stop. Steinès.”

Steinès vertical ambitions for the race meant he would eventually become known as ‘the father of the mountains’. Yet it was another key figure in Tour history who would become synonymous with the climb that is now the most visited in the history of the race (0f 97 Tours, including 2010, the Tourmalet has featured in 85).

France’s Octave Lapize had won a bronze medal in the men’s 100km track event at the 1908 London Olympics, following it with victory at Paris-Roubaix a year later. In the Tour of 1909, managing just a second place on Stage 2, Lapize had abandoned due to bad weather. The eventual winner, Luxembourg’s Francois Faber, joined him a year later on the start line in Paris, part of a much fancied Alcyon team. It was Faber who notched up the early successes, winning both Stage 2 and Stage 4. Then, on 21st July, the peloton set out from Luchon, the start of 14 hours in the saddle and a stage that would cement the Tourmalet’s place in Tour history. Hauling their 15kg bikes up the mountain, the rough, pitted roads meant the riders were frequently reduced to a walk.

At the top of the Aubisque, Desgrange and the other officials awaited the first riders. It was Lapize who emerged first, his face a perfect rictus of agony. On the stage’s final climb and with the pain of the Tourmalet still in his legs, it was at that moment that Lapize uttered the words for which he would become famous: “Vous êtes des assassins!” – ‘You are murderers’.

Other riders would come to be associated with the Tourmalet and for a variety of reasons; from the ingenuity of Eugene Christophe to the assuredness and dominance of Federico Bahamontes. But it is Octave Lapize and that brief, pained exclamation that best sums up the unique challenge the Tourmalet has presented for the past 100 years. It is Octave Lapize whose statue, every summer, is ceremoniously reinstated at the mountain’s summit.

With thanks to Graeme Fife.

The 1910 Challenge ride honours Lapize and his contemporaries, as well as Steines and Desgrange, giving four amateur riders the opportunity to cycle the same route as the leg-shattering stage 100 years ago.

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